Willa Cather’s “O Pioneers!” is the literary equivalent of a heritage monument that deserves the solicitous attention of cultural councils and ceremonies of felicitation to ensure that its significance is always kept alive in public memory. It is set in Nebraska towards the end of the 19th century and as the title succinctly suggests, its plot unfolds during the period when the first European settlers tried to establish their homesteads and build new lives in the prairies.
“But the great fact was the land itself, which seemed to overwhelm the little beginnings of human society that struggled in its somber wastes”
“In eleven long years John Bergson had made but little impression upon the wild land he had come to tame. It was still a wild thing that had its ugly moods; and no one knew when they were likely to come, or why. Mischance hung over it. Its Genius was unfriendly to man.”
The book begins with the sense of helplessness that the protagonist, Alexandra Bergson and her family experience in trying to “tame” the wild grasslands and in cultivating wheat and corn on the land that they own. Alexandra’s father John left behind his life as a shipyard worker in Sweden in search of the better prospects that the New World represented to those who only saw meagre prospects for themselves on the Old Continent. The early chapters convey the sense of utter displacement that Alexandra’s father and others like him face from relinquishing both their patrimony as well as the livelihood that they have known and practiced their entire lives. For people who had never been farmers, the prospect of cultivating on land that seems implacably hostile to both agriculture and human settlement seems daunting. The sense of futility overwhelms several of the families in the Divide, where the Bergsons lived and drives them to sell their land and move away to other parts, where they know the land to be more fertile or in pursuit of opportunities to practice their old occupations in the reassuring anonymity of big cities.
It is at this crucial juncture that this novel distinguishes itself from most other works of fiction produced in the early 1900s. John Bergson nominates his daughter to take charge of his estates when he would no longer be around and secures his two sons’ promise that they would follow their sister’s lead and would never sell the land that he had painstakingly acquired. Alexandra sees potential in the land that others viewed as unappeasable and decides to buy the land that her neighbors begin to sell despite her brothers’ strident objections. Her faith in the land is eventually validated and the novel sees her find peace and companionship after a lifetime of stoically facing every misfortune and trial virtually by herself.
This book has been hailed for being among the earliest feminist novels due to its portrayal of a strong female protagonist. Alexandra is introduced to us as “a tall, strong girl, and she walked rapidly and resolutely, as if she knew exactly where she was going and what she was going to do next. She wore a man’s long ulster (not as if it were an affliction, but as if it were very comfortable and belonged to her; carried it like a young soldier).” Her “glance of Amazonian fierceness” effectively silences a man who lets a flirtatious exclamation slip out of him on seeing her. These few sentences entirely describe the cardinal dimensions of Alexandra’s character that become manifest throughout the arc of the storyline. Her decisiveness and clarity of thought through every predicament and her role as the head of the family sit consistently with the image of the strong girl in the man’s ulster we meet in the first few pages.
One of the reasons the book left an enduring impact on me was certainly because of the wholesome pleasure of reading about a strong woman and the fact that she was conjured in the mind of an author during a time when as the preface reminds us, most female characters would either passively suffer the lot that they were born into or restricted themselves to being consumed by romantic relationships, both their own and of others around them. A bigger reason for me clinging yearningly to this book as I read its every page and going back to its passages even as I had moved on to reading another book was because of how much I enjoyed reading about the feeling of magnetic attachment that Alexandra felt towards the prairies. I am not sure if I can claim empathy to the full extent of Alexandra’s sentiment towards the land on which she has lived most of her life. I have been moving across geographical locations more frequently than I would have liked over the last few years. All I have experienced is a fragment of what Alexandra feels, such as feeling and perhaps even knowing, for one magical moment, that I am actually in conversation with the great mountains while hiking up the slopes within Chilean Patagonia. This has happened over and over again, in the Welsh countryside, in the Appalachians, in the Western Ghats and in the foothills of the Himalayas; I remember being wrapped in this feeling of belonging to the hills and the mountains.
“For the first time, perhaps, since that land emerged from the waters of geologic ages, a human face was set toward it with love and yearning. It seemed beautiful to her, rich and strong and glorious.”
Despite having only fractured and sporadic experiences of the sensation described in the novel, I do know what makes that emotion precious – this love for the physical environment transcends patriotism, religion and the spirit of family and community. I see it as a connection that is solely defined between an individual and that minuscule area of the planet which he or she presently occupies as if the land itself were a living being and is unfiltered by the lens of any other human construct. The emotion feels primordial and therefore, more pure and true relative to forms of attachment that arise through the exigencies of social custom and conditioning.
There are other characters in the novel who feel this attachment to land and to the elements. A reclusive Norwegian, referred to as “Crazy Ivar” by the others in town had abdicated nearly all the trappings of human civilization and chose to live in isolation in the woods and nominated himself the protector of the local fauna from the predatory instincts of the gun-owners around him. He could treat sick horses and understood the needs and behavior of birds and animals purely by instinct. He spoke little English and could communicate with these other living beings better than he did with the humans around him. While everybody else saw in him an abnormal person, even one “possessed” by spirits as her brothers insinuated, Alexandra saw in him a useful farm hand who could tend to the animals with utter sincerity. On more than one occasion, it is clear that Alexandra and Ivar saw each other as kindred spirits, connected by the instincts and affection that they each felt for Nature.
Marie Shabata, Alexandra’s Bohemian neighbor who becomes an important character later in the novel explains to Alexandra’s youngest brother Emil, “I do feel as if this tree knows everything I ever think of when I sit here. When I come back to it, I never have to remind it of anything; I begin just where I left off.” Marie is also one of Alexandra’s closest friends and it is easy to perceive the heightened sense of connection with all that is in the natural world among those she considers to be her kin.
An aspect of the novel that made it extremely interesting for the history buff in me is the diversity of cultural heritages of characters within it. This is that part of American history when the French, the Bohemians, the Swedes, Norwegians, Russians, Germans, were still exploring hitherto uninhabited parts of the country to identify where they could set up their homesteads for themselves and their progeny. The older characters have not yet learnt English and each group still retains their cultures and traditions, while also contributing to the formation of a common fabric of American culture.
I bought the novel right outside Central Park during my first visit to New York City. At less than 200 pages, you can finish the thin novel in merely one or two sittings of continuous bibliophilic rapture. As you can infer from my inability to stop writing about the novel, it is an enthrallment you will willingly submit to even long after you have closed the book jacket.